On July 7, 2016 the British news bulletin Religion and Geopolitics posted a report that Yazidi women captured by ISIS are being sold as sex slaves online. I suppose this could be called an electronic enhancement of barbarity; ISIS had used this before by posting videos of brutal beheadings. If there is hell anywhere on earth, it is the territory ruled by the self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. It is ironic that the Yazidis have long been maligned as devil-worshippers by their Muslim neighbors. The real devils are their oppressors.
Yazidis—along with Christians, Shi‘a and (not to forget) Sunni Muslims who disagree with ISIS ideology—have been relentlessly subjected to expulsion, torture, and massacres to the point defined as genocide in international law. The Yazidi religion is ancient, going back many centuries. The roots are in Iran, where Zoroastrianism taught a cosmic struggle between good and evil, personified by the creator god Ahura Mazda and his adversary Ahriman, who later mutated into the figure of Satan (who features in the Judaeo-Christian and Muslim scriptures). Yazidism is clearly monotheistic (if you will, Abrahamic), but its version of Satan is distinctly different: Satan was an angel appointed by God to rule this world. But (like Lucifer) he rebelled against God, later repented and was reconciled with God. The redeemed Satan is worshipped by the Yazidis as the Peacock Angel. Thus the actual facts about Yazidi religion are directly the opposite of the rumor that they are devil-worshippers. There is a cruel irony in this.
In the Christian imagination Satan is the prototype of absolute evil. In the United States every outlandish idea becomes a denomination. Thus there is now a Church of Satan. It was founded by Anton LaVey in 1966 in California (where else). It has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. It has now moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, a bit up the Hudson from its first post-Californian headquarters—Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan (did LaVey have a sense of humor?). The C.of.S. now claims First Amendment rights, and I assume its demeanor has become more sedate. If you want to know more about it, there is now a website (the devil wears a smartphone?). It states that God is an illusion, and that “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.” The self-description as proudly atheist does not preclude an identification with witches and its anniversary celebration uses the word Walpurgisnacht, German for “witches’ Sabbath.” This puts the C.of.S. into proximity with Wicca, the radical feminist group that also identifies with witches (Some time ago I stumbled on the fact that there was a Wiccan group at the U.S. Air Force Base in Greenland, which demanded that religious services be arranged for them, as is their right. The request had to be handled by the only chaplain there—also a woman, not a witch but a Southern Baptist. She was plunged into a crisis of conflict between her faith and USAF regulations. She could not be asked to conduct this service herself, but she was obliged to “facilitate it”—which meant helping a sinful act equivalent with blasphemy. I didn’t hear the end of the story.)
I hope I’m not violating the etiquette of interfaith relations if I say that neither latter-day coven is to be taken seriously. However, the Yazidi version of Satan relates in a curious way to a serious Christian tradition about hell and its abolition. That tradition originated in Eastern Greek Christianity. Its core idea is apokatastasis (Greek for “return” or “restoration”): Rooted in God’s infinite compassion, eventually all will be saved, hell will be no more, and the entire cosmos will be returned to the condition intended by its creator. There is another tradition, more Latin than Greek: Its focus is God’s sovereign justice and man’s fundamentally sinful nature, and it is inclined to believe in the reality of hell. Please note: This is not a binary opposition between East and West. Both traditions can be found in both regions. To borrow a term from the social sciences: It is a matter of the relative frequency distribution of two different motifs.
The Orthodox Free Encyclopedia, an American publication, has a useful article on the history of the doctrine of apokatastasis. Those who have espoused it can cite scriptural passages that seem to support it, such as Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, 2:4, which speaks of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved.” The New Testament is a library rather than one book, so there are other passages that support the idea of the eternity of hell. Origen of Alexandria (ca. 145-235 C.E.) formulated the ultimate restoration as explicitly including the devil. However, the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553 C.E.), whose authority is recognized by both East and West, condemned the doctrine of universal salvation and pronounced a specific anathema against Origen. On the other hand Gregory of Nissa, one of the great Greek fathers, who is revered as a saint by both East and West, endorsed the apokatastasis.
I think it is fair to say that the West, both in its Catholic and Protestant versions, has a stronger motif of God’s implacable justice and therefore is more open to the idea of eternal hellfire. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) is considered the father of Latin theology. He had a gloomy view of humanity (“a mass of perdition”), and believed in predestination (God plucking a few from this doomed condition). It is probably no accident that Luther was an Augustinian monk when he struggled with his sense of utter unworthiness. Both Augustine and Luther shrank from the conclusion that God, if he plucks some from damnation without considering their merit, must will the damnation of those he doesn’t pluck. It took Calvin, with the razor-sharp logic of a French lawyer, to reach the conclusion of double predestination: God, who is both all-powerful and all-knowing, has decided from all eternity who will be saved and who damned. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), an American Calvinist, is the author of the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He describes the delight of the elect who praise God’s justice, as they look down from heaven (where they have arrived without any merit of their own) upon the torments of the damned in hell (who too have landed regardless of what they did or failed to do). (I would nominate this text as the most repulsive in Christian history. Except that Edwards wrote an even more repulsive one, where the elect in heaven look down on close relatives suffering in hell, and praise the justice of God.)
So as not beating up on Protestants in invidious comparison with Catholics, I will cite the case of Gregory of Rimini (mid-14th century), an important participant in the debate over the fate of unbaptized children. Catholic doctrine for a long time held that baptism was necessary for salvation, and that unbaptized infants, who cannot be admitted to heaven or sent to hell, are stuck in limbo. There was general consensus that these unfortunates, while suffering from being deprived of God’ presence, do not suffer any positive pain. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval scholastics, agreed with this position. Rimini disagreed. He argued that, if one agrees that baptism is necessary for salvation, one must assume that unbaptized infants suffer positive pain. For this position he was called tormentor puerorum (“torturer of children”). (In the limbo administered by me Gregory of Rimini and Jonathan Edwards share a cell.) Rimini’s position was not officially endorsed by the Catholic Church. It quietly faded. But. Rome’s mills grind slowly. Only in 2007 a theological commission, with papal approval, declared that unbaptized infants may hope for heaven.
As we get closer to our own time, we can find various theologians—Orthodox but also Catholic and Protestant—who upheld the belief in universal salvation. But this post is already getting to be rather long, and I don’t want to lose readers to lecture-fatigue. I must at least mention an American Protestant denomination, the Universalists, founded as a church in 1866 with the explicit purpose of propagating the apokatastasis. In it 1961 merged with the Unitarians (who, rather than upholding any particular belief, rather endearingly call themselves “a community of seekers”). In the venerable tradition of Orthodox universalism I will also just mention the intellectually fertile Russian diaspora in the 20th century, with its theological school of St. Serge in Paris (its most famous teacher was Nicholas Berdyaev).
I think that I was not unkind when I said that the contemporary American quasi-Satanists and quasi-witches are not to be taken seriously. After all, Halloween is a perfectly harmless entertainment. But there is nothing more serious than the ultimate question raised by the proposition that hell will pass away: It is the age-old question of the mystery of evil. While I was rather laboriously preparing for this post, Elie Wiesel died—the tireless reminder of the Holocaust, which is plausibly called the most terrible crime in human history, and thus an icon of absolute evil. As such it is incomparable, but Wiesel himself has compared it, time and time again, with other genocidal projects against which he protested. If one wants to look at the true face of Satan, one need go no further than the Nazi SS or the ISIS murderers today. But I want to conclude on a happier note.
I know of no more touching statement on universal salvation than the one by the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (ca. 1342-1416). We know very little about her life. She may have been a nun, or she may have lived as a hermit near a convent in what was then a large town in England. Apparently she received visitors who sought her for spiritual guidance (in that she would resemble hermits in Orthodox Russia). Over a period of years she claimed to have visions—she called them “showings”—during which she had conversations with God. Around 1373 a book was published in which these supernatural encounters were described—Revelations of Divine Love (there was also a shorter version). All her “showings” revolve around her belief that the very essence of God is love. (I am reminded of her near-contemporary, Dante, who wrote that the stars are moved by the love of God.) In one conversation Julian argued with God about hell. She opined that the redemption of the world would not be complete until there was no more hell, and even the devil would have been saved. She knew that this belief was contradicted by the teaching of the Church and must therefore be impossible. (I somewhat paraphrase this exchange.) God then said to her that he can do whatever she thinks is impossible. Then comes the passage for which Julian of Norwich is most famous: “And all will be well. And all will be well. And every manner of thing will be well.” It is not clear from the text whether these are God’s words to Julian, or are her response to his message.
Already many years ago when I first read this passage, it struck me that it has the rhythm of a lullaby. This is how a mother comforts her weeping child. How one understands this comfort divides religious faith from skepticism about faith (all atheist posturing aside, such skepticism is reasonable and can even be stoic heroism). The skeptic may think (in kindness, he won’t say it to the mother) that the mother is essentially lying to the child: All things will not be well—she will die, as will the child, and so eventually will everyone, and (if modern physics is right), the entire cosmos will end, either in a cosmic supernova or a multi-galactic emptiness. In that case, religion is an illusion. The believer will think that the mother is not lying, that in the end every manner of thing will be well. In that case the comforting gesture of the mother, whether she knows it or not, is a signal of transcendence.